Is That a Fish in Your Ear - By Bellos, David


When I was an undergraduate, a story went around among students in my college that a fellow called Harris had refused to teach translation classes on the grounds that he did not know what “translation” was.

He’d challenged the faculty board to tell him what it was he was being asked to teach. Everyone knows what it is! they said. Translation has been taught here for centuries. But knowing how to perpetuate an academic tradition is not the same thing as knowing what you’re doing. Harris could not possibly teach a subject his seniors were unable to define.

We thought it a great giggle: a junior don had used a philosophical conundrum to get out of a chore and tied the fuddy-duddies into knots.

Despite the tantalizing puzzle set by Roy Harris at the start of my adult life, I have dared to teach translation for several decades since then. I have also translated many books and become the director of a program in translation and intercultural communication. So it’s about time I tried to answer his question.

However, answers are best found when the question itself is well put. “What is … ?” doesn’t normally provide a good prompt. It usually leads you headlong into hairsplitting disputes about the meanings of words.

The meaning of the word translation is not without interest, of course, and I’ve devoted one chapter of this book to the issue. But it isn’t as important as many other questions that arise just the same, whatever word we use.

Here are some of those other questions: What can we learn from translation? What does it teach us?

Many others then spring to mind: What do we actually know about translation? What is it about translation that we still need to find out?

We also have to ask: What do people mean when they offer opinions and precepts about the best way to translate? Are all translations the same kind of thing, or are there different operations involved in different kinds of translating? Is translating fundamentally different from writing and speaking, or is it just another aspect of the unsolved mystery of how we come to know what someone else means?

This isn’t a book that tells you how to translate, or how I translate. There are plenty of good books of those kinds; there’s no need to add a lesser one to the pile.

Instead, it is made of stories and examples and arguments that circle around what seems to me to be the real issue—understanding what translation does.

I’ve tried to paint a big picture by exploring the role of translation in cultural, social, and human issues of many kinds. To do so, I’ve used scholarly books and articles and exploited many erudite friends, but in many places I’ve also drawn on personal experience.

As I grew up in England and live in the United States, the point of view of this book is located unambiguously in the English-speaking world.

Because English is currently the dominant interlanguage of the world, English speakers who aren’t involved in translation have a harder time than most others in understanding what translation is. That’s my main reason for writing about it.

Finding out what translation has done in the past and does today, finding out what people have said about it and why, finding out whether it is one thing or many—these inquiries take us far and wide, to Sumer, Brussels, and Beijing, to comic books and literary classics, and into the fringes of disciplines as varied as anthropology, linguistics, and computer science. What translation does raises so many answerable questions that we can leave the business of what it is to the side for quite some time.


What Is a Translation?

Douglas Hofstadter took a great liking to this short poem by the sixteenth-century French wit Clément Marot:

Ma mignonne,

Je vous donne

Le bon jour;

Le séjour

C’est prison.



Puis ouvrez

Votre porte

Et qu’on sorte


Car Clément

Le vous mande.

Va, friande

De ta bouche,

Qui se couche

En danger

Pour manger


Si tu dures

Trop malade,

Couleur fade

Tu prendras,

Et perdras


Dieu te doint

Santé bonne,

Ma mignonne.

He sent a copy of it to a great number of his friends and acquaintances and asked them to translate it into English, respecting as well as they could the formal properties that he identified in it:

(1) 28 lines (2) of 3 syllables each (3) in rhyming couplets (4) with the last line being the same as the first; (5) midway the poem changes from formal (vous) to informal (tu) and (6) the poet puts his own name directly into the poem.1

Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, got many dozens of responses over the following